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Gerhart NiemeyerBrad Birzer was thinking, the other day, about intellectual refugees from Nazi Germany and other parts of Nazi-controlled Europe during the years leading up to and including World War II. He asked me if I knew Gerhart Niemeyer’s story. I told him that I do, from Gerhart’s son Paul’s loving and very competent biography of his parents (A Path Remembered: The Lives of Gerhart and Lucie Niemeyer), and from many conversations with Gerhart at Hillsdale College in the half-dozen years he graced us with his presence.

His story is not filled with the drama of my next door neighbor’s in little Phelps, New York—a German Jewish physician who literally was fleeing out the back door as the Gestapo was pounding on the front door—but it was nerve-wracking enough, and pretty typical of the stories of the 7,600 Europeans who made their way to the United States between 1933 and 1945. Like most of the others, Gerhart and Lucie had no real desire to come to the U.S.; they indeed had no plans to leave Essen, Germany until it became quite clear what Hitler’s rise to power meant for the rule of law in their native land.

Why should a young academic, just about to start his career, loathe and fear the Hitler regime? The great majority of German intellectuals tolerated the government and caused it no grief—except the Jews, of course, who were so numerous in German academic communities that well over forty-percent of all professors had lost their jobs by 1938. The Niemeyers were not Jewish; in fact, they were not religious in any traditional sense at all. Gerhart’s father Victor usually voted for conservative candidates for political office and was prominent member of Essen city council, an attorney, and a lover of the law, but was not made of the stuff of revolutionaries. But Gerhart was a disciple of  Hermann Heller, a Social Democrat and a Jew. His work and his personality had drawn Gerhart leftward, and when the Nazis grew suspicious of the mentor, the student assumed that he, too, could be guilty by association. In 1933, the Niemeyers began to act accordingly.

“We no longer have a place in this country,” Gerhart told Lucie in the spring of 1933. Heller went to England at the socialist scholar Harold Laski’s request, and eventually ended up in Spain, where he died of a heart attack in November, 1933. Gerhart followed him to Spain after traveling to Holland, France, England, and Switzerland looking for academic work. Academic times were tough, even if one were not on Hitler’s enemies list. Gerhart would not get a full time appointment until Princeton signed him on in 1937 at the rank of “Lecturer.” In the meantime, however, Gerhart and Lucie decided to go to Spain more or less permanently, where he made ends meet with a series of editorial, tutorial, and lecture positions, becoming fluent in Spanish along the way. He also knew French, English, and Latin, and could get research and translating jobs in five languages. For about a year he worked for the National Institute for Tourism, “translating their literature into German and providing captions for pictures.” It was not exactly what he was trained for, but it was a living. And he and Lucie got to live in an artsy hotel in Tossa de Mar on Spain’s northern coast, meeting Hans Morgenthau and the painter Marc Chagall, among others. They liked Spain.

That is, they liked Spain until the summer of 1936, when the Civil War broke out and continuing to live there became out of the question. Rather than return to Germany, this time Gerhart began seriously to consider permanent emigration, to either England or the United States. He worked with various private organizations—the U.S. government was not much interested in refugees of any kind (especially Jews)—although not the Rockefeller Foundation. That estimable foundation brought about 400 elite scholars to Harvard and other major academic institutions, but Gerhart was much to early in his career to qualify for the high Rockefeller standards. Gerhart came alone, Lucie and the two children several months later, and it was several months before other emigres helped to find him a position in the Department of Politics at Princeton. At one point Carl Friedrich had given Gerhart over 30 letters of introduction to American universities and colleges; Gerhart traveled to every one!

The Niemeyers adjusted well to America, but slowly. I once asked him why, as a man of the Left, he had not sought employment at the New School for Social Research. Founded in 1919, it was from the beginning a haven for both progressives and foreigners. Dozens of the European refugees found at least temporary homes on its faculty. Gerhart replied that he had no interest in the “social scientific” emphasis in the ideas of people who gathered there; he was also not so much of the Left that he would have been comfortable among the marxists and freudians who tended to dominate its public image. Much of the Frankfort School originated at the New School. Even before he began to feel like an American, Gerhart would have been appalled by that movement. He would find himself in this country only upon his move to South Bend, Indiana, and the University of Notre Dame in 1943, shortly after his conversion to Christianity. It was then that the real Gerhart Niemeyer was born.

One further story illustrates the adventures that almost all the intellectual refugees faced. In the summer of 1939 Lucie and the two children returned to Germany to visit with Victor and Kaethe and to attend Gerhart’s sister Itta’s wedding. Gerhart stayed behind, knowing he would be in danger in his homeland. (Interestingly, he was also briefly under suspicion for loyalty reasons in the U.S., as a German citizen.) Lucie was due to return in September, but when it became clear that Germany was about to declare war on Poland, Gerhart sent her a telegram that said, “Appendectomy inescapable. Please come as quickly as possible.” Lucy knew that he had had his appendix removed, and booked passage on the Bremen. It turned out to be the last time that ship was to sail from Germany. Had she stayed for her scheduled departure, she and the children would have been trapped in Germany for all of World War II.

Most of the intellectual refugees who escaped Hitler’s tyranny were either Jewish or leftists, or both. Gerhart Niemeyer would find his way to the Right through his conversion to Christianity and his growing conviction that all ideology resulted in tyranny and the demise of law. He eventually became close to the ideas and the person of Eric Voegelin, and was taken by the intelligence and personality of the young Bill Buckley. His friendship with Russell Kirk was long and deep. His remarks at Kirk’s funeral were moving beyond words.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Thank you, John, for sharing the story of our beloved friend, Gerhart. He was wise and good, a mentor who had a profound effect on me over the years, beginning while we were in Hillsdale, when he invited me to visit Lucie and Notre Dame. Our friendship continued through my years in Germany as well. When he came to visit Itta, he would also come to Cologne, so I was blessed to continue to learn from him. His mind was razor sharp, as were his comments in the intellectual realm (including those on a manuscript I sent him), but he was always truthful and fair. His heart was generous and filled with the presence of God, growing more luminous each year as he got older. I remember his taking me aside at a Philadelphia Society meeting to explain to me why he was entering the Catholic Church. I thought “why does this great man take the time to do this? He owes me no explanation.” But he wanted me to understand what he was going toward, and that this was what drew him. One afternoon in Cologne he told me about prayer without words. After all the adoration, confession, thanks, and petitions, then waiting in silence. Focusing love in your heart and sending it toward Christ in a silent beam, one heart to another. Then holding it there. Sometimes a beam returns, other times words of an answer or encouragement may come. Sometimes a stream of grace pours back flooding the soul. It was here, through Gerhart, that I experienced the mystic aspect of faith that nourished the aridity of my faith. And I experienced the source of sweetness that permeated him more and more. He asked me once in his last years, “Why does God leave me here so long?” I think it was so he could continue to show us the way to the source of Truth and Love. I miss him, and think of him often. St. Gerhart, your presence lives on in our hearts. Pray for us.

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